Why do so many young, previously healthy soldiers come back from the Middle East with respiratory problems, some so bad they can no longer pass a physical required for active duty? The question was made more urgent with the results of a new study showing that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans do indeed have a higher rate of respiratory illness than soldiers deployed in other areas. The study, thought to be the largest of its kind, shows that 14.5% of Iraq or Afghanistan veterans had respiratory illness, compared to just 1.8% of veterans deployed elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Toxins from “burn pits,” where trash and even medical waste has been burned in the past, could be to blame. One 31-year-old recalls plumes of thick, black smoke that gave him weeklong headaches; he is now on disability for chronic respiratory pulmonary disorder. Since 2009, however, steps have been taken to improve or halt the use of such pits. Other possible culprits include dust storms and blast pressure from explosives. Determining the scope of the problem is difficult for multiple reasons, including the fact that post-traumatic stress disorder can also impair breathing. Says one expert, "I don't think we have a sense for how big the problem is at all.”